A great love returns to me

January 29, 2012

Recently the A.T. Cross Company purchased some ping pong tables for its employees. Among those employees is one of my friends that lives here in the building. He quickly caught the table tennis bug and then proposed an idea to me and another of our friends here… we should pool some money and buy a table tennis top for the pool table in the common area. And just like that, a great love was back in my life.

I learned to play as a kid. We had a table in the front porch. It barely fit (no room on the sides) but it was still fun. One summer I remember organizing the M.P.P.L. (Moosup Ping Pong League) which had 10 or so competitors but was basically a way for me to win a championship of my own making (which I did). As much as I liked the sport at that point, it was in college that I really started to play a lot (foolishly instead of going to class sometimes). I got to play a lot of good players and became highly skilled (my Accounting teacher was very good – we’d get an audience when we played). For a long time after I dropped out I didn’t play at all, but then I bought a table when I moved into the house in Sterling. I set up a system of lights above the table in the basement. It was a very good setup, and my brother Adam and I would battle it out there (he also improved greatly in college). When I moved to Cranston I believe I brought the table with me, but I don’t recall ever playing there.

Since then I’ve only played a couple of times. I made one trip to the RITTA (Rhode Island Table Tennis Association) when I was in my first year of teaching and fared well against the B-division players but at that point didn’t have the time to regularly play (the first year of teaching is ridiculous – you’re either at school or preparing for school). I plan on heading back soon to see how far up the ladder I can climb in the A-division.

So I guess I should stop talking about myself for a minute and talk about the sport’s history. It originated in Britain in the 1880s and was played with a golf ball and stacks of books as a net. It was called “wiff-waff” and later “ping-pong” because of the sounds the ball made. It moved closer to the game we know now when James Gibb discovered novelty celluloid balls on a trip to the U.S. and decided they would be perfect for the game. In the 1950s foam rubber paddles changed the game by adding much more spin (I learned to play with hard paddles so I prefer not to use heavy foam/rubber). In 2000, the size of the ball was increased from 38mm to 40mm to slow down the game slightly and make it easier for Olympic games television viewers to follow the action. The NFL is surely worried… maybe it just needs “fantasy table tennis” to make the national championship a rival to the Super Bowl someday.

The technology addiction epidemic to which our nation has yet to acknowledge does have a few upsides… especially for the data gatherers of the world. Even Facebook is useful, since most people update their “relationship status” regularly (I’ve never done it, but I’m old so that’s no big surprise). Here is a graph showing which days of the year breakups are most common. It looks almost exactly as I expected it to – with the peaks in the (literal) darkest time of the year (holiday season) and at the end of the long dark grey and grueling winter. The best days for relationships are those glorious late summer months of walks on the beach and thunderstorms. Here’s the source if you want to read more about breakups.

I tried to find a similar graph that rated people’s “happiness” over the course of a year as well, but I didn’t find a good one (and I spent a whole five minutes looking). I did, however, find this site that showed that people in colder countries are happier than those in warmer countries, in contrast to the seasonal trends we see for the breakup graph. The site connects this with the fact that colder countries are richer than warmer countries. From other reading I’ve done, income appears to have an effect on happiness level until the point of basic needs being consistenetly met (food & shelter) and then tapers off again as we seek to get ever richer.

But if you love statistics and fancy graphs, as well as silliness, the ultimate site for you is OK Trends, which is associated with the free dating site OK Cupid. Lots of interesting stuff there, from dating and sex graphs to “The Mathematics of Attractiveness,” which postulates that it’s better to have looks that elicit extreme reactions (some people think you’re a 2 but on average you’re a 7 because some people think you’re hot) than to just have everyone think you are a “pretty good looking” 7. Sadly it seems to have ground to a halt as far as new entries go, but there’s still tons to see. Enjoy!

¡Influenza!

January 18, 2012

Despite my best efforts, I’m sick. I was hoping not to miss any school days this year, but no such luck. I’ve fought off a couple of minor colds, but the flu seems to have found me. I didn’t get a flu shot this year, which is a bit silly considering I’m around sneezing students every day.

Still, the flu is not a big deal – it essentially hits a giant “pause” button on my life. I can’t do much since my brain doesn’t work quite right when I’m sick (and the cold meds aren’t exactly helpful here) so my ability to read/learn or get projects done is diminished. I basically drink ginger ale and watch television until I’m better. Boring, but hardly anything to get too upset over.

Nobody likes getting the flu, but we really must consider ourselves lucky that the current strains of flu virus aren’t too potent. The flu pandemic of 1918 (called the Spanish flu, though it actually appeared elsewhere first) killed between 20 and 50 million people. Most modern forms of influenza are descendants of this virus (influenza-A, also known as H1N1). The last pandemic was the H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009, which was a big deal in the media but did not cause a large number of deaths (though it should be remembered that the “regular” flu kills up to a half a million people each year worldwide, mostly those in relatively poor health).

Interestingly, the flu seems to be widespread throughout the United States at the moment, according to this CDC map. I would have expected warmer states to show less flu, since influenza tends to strike in the winter (both in the northern and southern hemisphere, which have winter at different times of year). The flu appears even in tropical places, though it’s less seasonal in balmy climes. It seems that scientists aren’t quite sure why the flu is worse in the winter, and predicting when the next deadly variation will arrive is mere guesswork.

\prǝ•li•fik\

January 15, 2012

This week I listened to a podcast about a criminally insane man who played a big part in the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary. But as I was reading more about that dictionary, I was led in down a side path and ended up reading about a Noah Webster, a Connecticut native who is considered the father of American education (my guess is that he’d be horrified by the current state of our public education system, but that’s neither here nor there).

His professional career got off to a rocky start after attending Yale during the Revolutionary War (and college didn’t go smoothly either – he quit for a year after lapsing into a depression but found his way back on track after finding a mentor). He passed the bar exam but couldn’t find work as an lawyer due to the war so he opened a school which was immediately successful, but then he quickly shut it down and left town, likely due to a failed romance.

Webster then turned to writing, where he wrote a series of popular newspaper articles and then his first versions of his famous Speller, Grammar and Reader books for elementary education. These books were designed to teach reading in elementary school and were quite successful. The Speller book was known as the Blue-Backed Speller due to it’s blue cover, and would see 385 editions in Webster’s lifetime, sell over 60 million copies, and be a dominant force in reading education for over 100 years. Over the course of all these editions, Webster changed the spelling of many words to make them “Americanized.” This was somewhat arbitrarily, but clearly growing up as a patriot during the revolution gave him the desire to distance even the language from British rule.

Of course, Webster is probably most famous for his dictionary, but these weren’t successful in his lifetime. He published his first dictionary in 1806 and then  much more comprehensive version in 1825, but it only sold 2,500 copies. He finished his second edition in 1843 and then died soon afterwards. After his death his dictionary rapidly grew in popularity and influence.

One statistic in particular stood out to me about Webster’s life – he was such a prolific writer that a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages! He would have been quite the blogger…

Black, one sugar

January 10, 2012

I’ve been very busy lately, but a short post on SYSK’s recent podcast about coffee is in order. Coffee is a relatively recent beverage (15th century) that originated in Ethiopia and was then spread first through the Muslim world and later to India, Italy and beyond to the rest of Europe and the Americas.

Believe it or not, the photo above is what coffee looks like in berry form. To make coffee beans from this it must be peeled (the “coffee” part is is like a pit in the middle), dried and finally roasted. Coffee is not grown in the United States due to unsuitable weather conditions. Brazil is by for the leader in coffee production, followed by Vietnam and Columbia (where the mythical Jual Valdez was “born”).

The podcast has caused me to make a change in my coffee consumption (unlike my cheese post – can’t you people take a hint? Where’s my cheese of the month club Christmas present?) I’m now buying beans and grinding them right before brewing. I must say it’s a more flavorful experience (coffee has twice as many flavors as wine) and I’m likely to keep up the practice since it’s not much more work.

Hawaiian Punch

January 3, 2012

So I’m sitting here watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the scene where Jason Segel’s character meets Kudu, played by Paul Rudd. Kudu’s real name is Chuck, and he explains that he got his name by typing his mainland name into an internet converter. So I found one online, and my Hawaiian name is Koni. I don’t know how scientific this is, but it’s probably a bit more so than the Smurf name generator I found a couple of years ago.